Just a quick explanatory note for my posts in the month of October 2022: starting tomorrow, I’ll be posting every day about books that are currently sitting on my physical to-be-read shelf in my office. While the total number of unread physical books in my stacks is well over 150-200, I’m zeroing on about 35-40 that I’m really looking to read over the next year-plus.
The books I’ll feature here will come back around later at some point, as I read, digest, review, critique, and/or promote them on the blog. So think of these posts this month as sneak previews of upcoming attractions.
I’d love to get your feedback throughout the month. If you have read any of these books, please comment with your review (spoiler-free, in the case of the novels I list, please!) and other insights or feedback you got from them. If the review sounds interesting and you are considering checking the book out after reading the post, I’d love to receive that feedback as well.
And if you are so inclined, I’d also invite you to use the hashtag #OctTBR2022 on your own website or social media and share what you’ll be reading for the rest of this year and during 2023.
Let me know if you have any other ideas of how to make this series more fun. I’d love to hear from you. Thanks!
For the follower of Jesus, it can be a great encouragement to hear and read stories of past saints who have finished the race well. We see that in the Scriptures, as God gives us what has been called by many the famous “Hall of Faith” chapter in Hebrews 11, detailing how the saints of the Old Testament stood firm on their faith in God and His Word.
In my experience, reading the stories of past believers who have followed Jesus even to the point of death can be a convicting and riveting practice. Whether it’s Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or biographies of past theologians and missionaries, these stories have fueled the fire of devotion and perseverance for generations of Christians seeking to walk the same faithful path, myself included.
I recently finished reading a fine example of this type of spiritual biography that I was pleased to add to my bookshelf: Don Karns’ She Did What She Could. This is a collection of historical accounts, Scripture passages, and biographical tracts from past eras that tell the stories of little-known women of the faith. The title references Mark 14, in which a woman (whom John identifies as Mary, sister of Lazarus) anoints Jesus’ feet with a sweet-smelling ointment. When the disciples complained, Jesus defended her and said she has done all she could to honor him.
Through this collection of historical accounts that Karns has gathered across the centuries of church history, the pleasing aroma of these saints’ devotion is still powerful and praiseworthy.
I was delighted to receive Don Karns’ slim volume in the mail from my friend Michael Coughlin, with a request to share my thoughts. I’m more than happy to satisfy that request now.
The Evangelist with a Pastor’s Heart
The first things about this book that struck me were the notes from Karns himself. In his “Preface,” “Words of Encouragement,” and “Conclusion,” Karns labors to proclaim the Gospel clearly and urgently, in the hope that unsaved readers will understand why these stories are being told and what would drive people throughout the centuries to give up their lives and suffer hardship and martyrdom. The tone of Karns’ writing is winsome and pleading, seeking to make his appeal instead of shout down any expected critics.
I did a little internet research on the author and learned that he is a long-time evangelist and open-air preacher who seems to be respected by many who are familiar with his ministry. When critical or nasty comments are posted on his ministry website’s homepage, the responses from the site account are nothing but pleasant, earnest, and humble as they refute the accusations of the pagans and respond with Scripture.
Just as the testimonies of the inconspicuous women being highlighted in this work draw out the sweet aroma of Christ, I was touched by that same sweetness in the language Karns uses. Without knowing anything about him specifically, I can tell what kind of man he might be, making me all the more willing to read his compilation of testimonies.
In Memory of Her
The bulk of the volume consists of various historical accounts of women of faith. A few notable names are included in the group (such as Ann Judson and Joni Erickson-Tada), but most of them are all but unknown to most readers. This accounts of “the young cottager” or “the dairyman’s daughter” provide portraits of humble folk (often the very young or those facing the shadow of death) who are transformed by the Gospel. In many ways, these accounts remind me of The Pilgrim’s Progress, not because they are in any way fictional but because the lofty speech and conversation are full of allusions to Scripture.
In some of these accounts, I have to confess that I struggled to follow the dialogue sometimes. That might be blamed on my “reading muscles” becoming a bit too flabby as of late. At times, I did wonder if these conversations were a bit too lofty to be realistic, but that also may be due to the low expectations of a modern mind! Even if some of the wording of these accounts might have been “polished up” a bit to make clearer points, I have no reason to doubt they are truthful in the main.
My favorite section by far was the one titled “Women of the Covenant,” recounting the martyrdom of several women who were part of the Scottish “covenanters.” While the stories are just as challenging and encouraging as the other sections, the writing of this particular passage was poetic and vivid, and I found myself stopping to re-read several sentences that were perfectly crafted.
Karns closes the book by throwing the reader a curve ball. After regaling us with story after story of women of faith, he closes with a sermon excerpt from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon, and a brief account of Luther’s prayer on the night before his “Here I Stand” speech at the Diet of Worms. However out-of-theme these inclusions were, they were fully in-step with the spirit of the book as a whole, calling unbelievers to trust in Jesus for salvation and challenging believers to live lives of faith and sacrifice for His glory.
A Treasure in a Rough-Hewn Case
As lovely as the contents of this volume are, I would be remiss not to address the problems I have with its presentation and production. It’s clear as soon as you pick the book up that it was self-published. On the whole, there’s nothing wrong with self-publishing a book. I’ve read more than a few self-published works in my time (I may even write a few someday), and they can be edited and produced to meet or even surpass the industry standard. However, I should note certain issues with this one, if for no other reason than the off-chance the author or his ministry partners are considering an additional print run and would be willing to make corrections.
The formatting of the work is inconsistent throughout, changing font types and sizes. Sometimes, the formatting is oppressively dense, including several sections of block text without visual breaks that go on for pages at a time. While I recognize that the source material was likely written and typeset in the same manner, I would ask the author (or others producing similar works) to take the liberty of reformatting these entries for better readability and acknowledging the changes with an editor’s note of some kind. There are also a handful of typos that should have been caught during the proofreading process; those sorts of things happen in even the big publishing houses, but that means it’s all the more important for the small team working on a book like this to be extra careful, as fewer eyes will see it before its release.
These may be considered nit-pick criticisms, but if one’s goal is to bring these stories to a new audience, or even (as the author seems to indicate) to share them with non-believers, part of the ministry work is taking the time to put out an excellent product free of the editorial distractions that could undercut or cheapen the overall presentation.
To Don Karns and anyone else who may be working on a self-published book like this, I urge you not to skip out on this vital step in the process. (By the way, if you are looking to hire a manuscript editor / proofreader for a bit of contract work, I’m available!)
She Did What She Could is a worthwhile read that presents a collection of mostly-unknown Gospel conversion and martyrdom stories from church history. From a publishing standpoint, the book needs some polish and updates, but that doesn’t detract from the message. If you love Jesus, this volume will help you to treasure and trust him all the more, as you walk through these short histories of women of whom the world was not worthy.
I’ve loved Ray Bradbury’s fiction since my early teens, when I first read “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” from The Martian Chronicles in English class. I was floored by Farhenheit 451, delighted by Dandelion Wine, and mesmerized by Bradbury’s myriad short stories. His Zen and the Art of Writing is still in my top-five writing books of all time. However, I contend that his most underappreciated work is his “Halloween novel,” Something Wicked This Way Comes.
I was 15 or 16 when I first encountered this novel, recommended by a classmate of mine. The imagery was indelible, and even if the exact details of the plot escaped me in the intervening years, the mental images of the midnight train and the dark carnival arriving at 3 a.m. have been forever lodged in my imagination.
A few weeks back, I listened to an episode of The Great Books Podcast (highly recommended podcast, by the way), covering this novel and its themes. The discussion was so intriguing, I decided it was time to revisit this story, about 25 years after my initial reading.
Boy, am I glad I did.
Spinning the Carousel
The set-up of the book is spooky and enchanting: a few days before Halloween, childhood best friends Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade encounter a lightning-rod salesman who warns them that a big storm is coming and that they should get prepared. Soon, they see a flyer for “Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show,” a mysterious carnival on a train that chugs its way to the outskirts of town at 3 a.m., the “witching hour.” It becomes clear that this carnival has a sinister and perhaps even demonic pull on the hearts of some of the residents of Green Town, Illinois, and soon Jim and Will start to see and feel the effects of the carnival themselves.
One of the biggest dangers of Cooger and Dark’s carnival are the rides and attractions that seem to grip people’s hearts and souls: the carousel that can make people older or younger, depending on which direction it spins; the hall of mirrors that can magnify the pain and isolation one feels; the Dust Witch who sees the future and reads the mind; the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, encased in a tomb of ice. These sideshow attractions take on a shadow of foreboding as they seem to embody the things that tempt the main characters the most (recalling to mind an idea that Stephen King would later take up in Needful Things, though I’m not sure that the one directly influenced the other). Bradbury explores the nature of temptation, the hunger of discontentment, and the danger of giving up almost anything to satisfy your deepest desires.
Without giving too much away, the plot of the story involves Will and Jim recognizing that something’s unsettling and wrong about the carnival and its inhabitants, trying to stop their plans themselves, and, when that becomes impossible, eventually enlisting the help of Will’s father, Charles Halloway. Halloway is described as a prematurely “old man” of 54 (!) who works as a janitor at the library, is a lover and reader of books, and becomes the only hope the boys have to stand up against the forces of Mr. Dark (the “Illustrated Man”) and his carnival troupe.
The book is a showcase of fantasy-horror, with lyrical prose that evokes startling and beautiful imagery. Bradbury is sometimes pigeon-holed as just being a “sci-fi guy” or a “dystopian writer.” His ability to paint a picture of sublime small-town Americana that suddenly veers into gothic horror is breath-taking.
Staring Into the Mirrors
Over the last few years, I’ve revisited works of art and media that I remembered loving in my youth and young adulthood. As I’ve done so, I’ve noticed how certain ideas or characters hit me in an entirely different way as a middle-aged, married man than they did two decades prior. This book was another one of those instances.
For one thing, there were subtle suggestions or references to sexuality in a few chapters that totally sailed over my head as a young and blessedly naive teenager. This is not at all to say that the book is crass or crude; Bradbury is able to trace the faintest outline of an idea so that the reader understands his implication, without needing to be explicit or base. As a sheltered teenaged boy eager to move along the creepy plot, I flew right past certain dialogue exchanges and paragraphs without realizing what was really being talked about or its implications (for example, Jim peeping through a window and seeing something he shouldn’t have, planting seeds of lust in his heart). While one could suggest that such references are unnecessary (and I don’t disagree totally), it could also be argued that those moments show us another picture of the enticement of sin, without debasing the reader with lurid description. At any rate, I was a bit shocked, reading these scenes with adult eyes.
However, the big shift in my reading experience was being able to understand Charles Halloway so much better. In my youthful mind, he was simply a wise mentor character, a heroic father, but little more; I was too busy putting myself in the shoes of young Will, scared by a wilder and weirder world than he was ready for. Now, I noticed different things about Charles. I related to his frustration with the passage of time, as his mind and body disagreed on how old he really was. I recognized with bitter familiarity the fleeting temptation of the carnival’s flyer advertising “the most beautiful woman in the world” and that split-second of hesitation, of imagining, before Charles dismissed the images and thoughts it conjured in his mind. I heard my own voice in his discussion with his wife about how he wishes he were a younger father, instead of there being a 40 year difference between himself and Will (a feeling that especially hit home as we’ve recently welcomed our third daughter, halfway-through my 40th year). I felt empathy as Charles seemed to wonder who he really was, what his life was good for, as he considered his work and his place in the world.
These are all questions and thoughts and emotions that may be most clearly felt and understood and written by a middle-aged man (Bradbury was 42 when the book was published). As such, it seems that it’s only now, in this second reading, that I have truly begun to understand this book.
“It is my own smile.”
In the end, love wins the day. Not in a cliched or bumper-sticker-style way. Love wins, because joy wins. Acceptance and contentment and gratitude wins. Sometimes, the best thing a middle-aged father can do to fight off the dark fog that creeps around his life is to smile, to laugh loudly, to embrace his wife and children, and to be grateful for what he’s been given.
And for the thirteen-year-old boy, looking out with trepidation at the big, bad world, perhaps his superpower, his totem against the darkness, is realizing that he would be blessed to become that kind of “old man” one day.
If you’ve never read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, I would highly encourage it. It’s a creepy and beautifully-written “genre” novel that touches on deep ideas and themes about the human experience. It’s easy to miss because it’s one of Bradbury’s lesser-known works, but it surely deserves a place of honor alongside his more popular novels.
And if you *have* read it before, and it’s been a little while, maybe give it another shot and see what new things pop out. You never know what you might discover!
This experience has inspired me to go back and revisit other books I read years ago to see if my perspective has changed. I don’t know how often I’ll get to do so, but whenever I do, I’ll come back here to tell you all about it, deal?
Have you read this book? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!
[This is Day 30 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for one more recommendation!]
What It Is: A short and very practical book about “one another” ministry within the Church.
Why You Should Read It: While God does give some as pastors and teachers to help build up the body of believers, the nuts-and-bolts day-to-day ministry of the church isn’t done by paid professionals, but by the everyday believer in the pews. Welch lays out practical encouragements to teach believers how to “build up one another in love” and minister to each other’s spiritual and emotional needs. If you want to know how to create a culture of love and service and discipleship in your church, whether you’re in a particular church office/role or just a healthy and active member of the body, get this book and put it into practice.
[This is Day 29 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: A basic introduction to primal/keto eating from one of the most respected names in this particular area of nutrition coaching.
Why You Should Read It: If you’re a sugar addict like I am, and you’ve struggled with weight like I do, the ketogenic diet may be a good fit for you. But it can be done really badly, even dangerously (like any strict eating plan), so having a sensible on-ramp is the best way to approach it. Mark Sisson gives you that on-ramp by laying out the basic ideas and science behind a ketogenic approach to eating, and then he walks the reader through a 3-week process of dialing back carb intake, fine-tuning some non-food lifestyle factors that may affect your ability to restrict carb intake, and then tweaking the dials a bit in the last week to get you ready for full-blown keto eating. I’ll admit, I read this book, tried to apply it, and then fell off the wagon after a few months of “going keto.” Not an uncommon thing–but the fact of it is, when I’m “on-plan,” I feel better and I lose weight. Kicking the sugar addiction is hard. But if you’re ready to commit to something serious in order to curb the habit, Mark Sisson may have your answer.
[This is Day 28 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: A book about the hobby/sport of distance running that is written for the couch-to-5K’er instead of the elite athlete.
Why You Should Read It: John “The Penguin” Bingham and Jenny Hadfield wrote for Runner’s World magazine for years. Bingham in particular became a champion for the plodders, walkers, and waddlers (like me), and through his words he helped to make the running community open and accessible to the less-than-fit who were interested in discovering a new hobby on the open road. This book is the perfect entry-point for people who have never really done any distance running (or run/walking, or just plain walking) and perhaps feel intrigued yet intimidated by the idea. They talk about how to get started, what a training program might look like depending on your physical level, how to eat, how to rest, and what gear you might need. It would be easy to get overwhelmed by the flood of information on the internet. Books like this take the reader by the hand and say, “Let’s just take a walk and get started!” Like the running community itself, Bingham and Hadfield welcome readers from all backgrounds to join the fun and discover something new about themselves in the process.
[This is Day 27 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: A cultural jeremiad written 35 years ago about the power and allure of news-as-entertainment that is still surprisingly applicable to our image-driven culture.
Why You Should Read It: While Postman didn’t anticipate the Internet age, his critiques and warnings have proven all the more applicable. Postman takes the idea of “the medium is the message” and argues that at some point, the medium starts to undercut or subvert the message, which has a devastating effect on public discourse. His warnings about television seem almost quaint now, but you can extrapolate the trajectory out and see that he was certainly on the right track. I still think about some of his arguments about the mental and emotional weight of daily news updates that don’t actually give you actionable information. While a bit outdated now, there’s still a lot of core ideas here worth exploring. You can see the foundations of the work of current cultural observers like Cal Newport and Tony Reinke.
[This is Day 26 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: An encouraging reminder to pastors and those in full-time ministry that they are first and foremost disciples and sheep themselves, and that their true hope of peace, security, and fulfillment is found in Jesus’ completed work, not their many efforts and accomplishments in ministry.
Why You Should Read It (And/Or Give it Away): This book is a balm to the wounds and a cup of cool water to the dry throat of pastors and elders who are laboring in ministry and growing weary and burnt out. Wilson writes with such compassion toward that group because he was there himself–exhausted and heartsick from years of doing, doing, doing. When he finally stopped and threw himself desparately into the arms of grace, he was reminded that his security and hope is found in what Jesus has accomplished on his behalf, not on his performance or perfection. Even if we pastors know this to be true mentally or abstractly, it’s a different thing for us to believe it from the heart. Wilson reminds us that we serve best when we serve from a place of full reliance on God’s grace. If you’re a pastor, read this book. If you know a pastor, get them this book. There are still a few more days in “Pastor Appreciation Month.” Grab a copy or two for the shepherds who serve and love you and your family.
[This is Day 25 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: A lay-friendly exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, with commentary on how each article is grounded in Scriptural truth and has application to the Christian life.
Why You Should Read It: I’m not quite halfway through this one, but I can easily recommend it. Upon the recommendation of a dear friend who gave it to me as a gift, I’m reading it slowly, section by section, giving myself time to meditate on the insights provided. Dr. Van Dixhoorn walks the reader through each point of each article of the confession, providing the Scriptural basis for each statement and describing the logical progression and thought processes of the Westminster Divines’ argumentation. Each section begins with the original text of the article sub-section, next to a modernized version of the verbiage, followed by Dr. Van Dixhoorn’s analysis and application. Rather than being a dry and dusty academic tome, this one has warmed my heart and encouraged me in my devotion to the Lord. Strong recommendation here.
Hey y’all, just a quick non-Booktober-related note:
This is my 500th post on this blog. I’m…stunned. Stunned and very pleased. I’ve been blogging in various places for the last…golly, has it really been 17 years?!? But I started this particular blog about 7 years ago, and only in the last couple of years has it really taken off in terms of views and readers. It’s been pretty exciting seeing the engagement–knowing that people actually read and care about what I write is thrilling in a way I never expected.
THANK YOU SO MUCH to the readers and commenters who keep coming back, and by doing so keep *me* coming back. I hope this blog and my words are a blessing and an encouragment to you. Feel free to drop me a hello in the comments, especially if you’ve never done so before. I’d love to thank you by name, if I can.
[This is Day 24 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: Set on Nollop (an island off the coast of South Carolina), a place of particular literary notoriety, this novel is composed of mailed notes and messages that become more and more off-kilter as particular letters of the alphabet are declared illegal by the town elders.
Why You Should Read It: I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for literary gimmickry, and this funny little novel has a pretty unique hook. Set on the island named for the person who coined the sentence that uses all 26 letters, it’s a story about how tradition can become oppressive and totalitarian control can grow ludicrous and untenable. As letters begin to fall off the island’s monument to its namesake, the people of Nollop are mandated never to use those letters in speech or writing again, upon threat of physical punishment and ultimately banishment. Since this is a “novel in letters,” the narrator/protagonist must use increasingly strained word choices and spelling in order to communicate the events of the town to her reader. This one is a hoot. Check it out.